ON THE STATE BORDER BETWEEN KYRGYZSTAN AND CHINA
Nurgul Kerimbekova, Ph.D. (Hist.), chief, Strategic Problems Department, Foreign Ministry of Kyrgyzstan
Vladimir Galitskiy, Senior researcher, National Academy of Sciences of Kyrgyzstan
Spring 2002 in Kyrgyzstan was a hard time: the south was shaken by the tragic events in the Aksy District, opposition made another attempt at destabilizing domestic situation while the power structures’ inability to stabilize it caused a cabinet crisis. Numerous rallies, pickets and hunger strikes rolled across the country and reached the capital. Discontent skillfully fanned by certain politicians provoked heated debates between the parliament, executive power and the public. People blocked an important highway between the south and the north; various population groups expressed their protest in different ways. All this taken together produced a political crisis in the republic.
A careful analysis of the situation demands a clear idea about what caused the tension in the first place. The opposition and the public that supported it demanded that member of parliament A. Beknazarov convicted of abuse of office should be acquitted of the charges; that the government annul its decisions about publishing activity; that the Additional Agreement of 1999 on the State Border between Kyrgyzstan and China be not ratified and that President Akaev be forced to resign.
Obviously, popular discontent was caused by the still unresolved social and economic problems of the transition period, the slow pace of the reforms, widespread corruption, etc. The government quite aware that the conflict may spread further and become uncontrollable introduced certain stabilizing measures that took care of many demands of the opposition and those who supported it.
At the same time, it was clear that the border delimitation issue was deliberately linked to the antigovernment actions to stir up the public and to channel its discontent against “transfer of Kyrgyz lands” and certain politicians accused of corruption and betrayal of national interests. This was a deliberate attempt to distort the results of the long and complicated negotiations on the disputable stretches of the border, to disorient people who had no reliable information about the talks and to cause a wave of discontent with the authorities. Eager to seize power the parliamentary opposition ignored the fact that the border issue should be settled in the interests of the state while the popular masses urged by a false idea of “the sold off Motherland” helped the opposition leaders reach their aim.
It should be noted that executive power and the state-owned media were informing the population about the foreign and domestic actions of the country’s leaders, including the talks on the border settlement, especially about the negotiations with China, in the usual way. The relevant materials ranging from short notes to contributions from politicians, experts and academics appeared on time and in adequate numbers without causing a murmur from the opposition camp. The issue was too sensitive to be discussed in detail in public so that not to disrupt the talks attended by a joint delegation of Russia, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, on the one side, and that of China, on the other. A certain degree of secrecy allowed the opposition and its supporters to interpret the problem as they saw it fit and to start a wide-scale campaign against the results of delimitation of the disputable border stretches.
It was after the Aksy District events of March 2002 that a sharp discussion flared up in expectation of parliamentary debates on the ratification of the Additional Agreement in May 2002. It should be noted that in the recent years the political opposition and part of the media have been concentrating on what is going on along the borders with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan rather than with China.
The problem of a just division of debated territories has been and remains the most topical, often dramatic issue that every state finds sensitive and painful. The disputed territories not legally divided between the states have been causing and do cause strained relations between the states concerned, lead to border disagreements and even conflicts.
The history of the border disputes between Kyrgyzstan and China is intimately connected with the relations between Russia and China in the latter half of the 19th century. At that time the territory of Kyrgyzstan within its contemporary borders was part of the Turkestan Governor-Generalship that also included the lands of the Bukhara, Kokand, and Khiva khanates that czarism had conquered. The talks between the Russian and the Qing Empire proceeded without the Turkestan peoples, and the Kyrgyz in particular.
Today, the republic’s border with other countries is 4,767 km long of which 1,071.8 km border on China, 990.6 km, on Tajikistan, 1,228.3 km on Kazakhstan, 1,308 km on Uzbekistan. The border still requires demarcation.
The border between the Russian Empire and China, later between the Soviet Union and China, and still later between the newly independent post-Soviet states and China was determined by a number of treaties and protocols signed in the latter half of the 19th century: the Peking Additional Treaty of 2 November, 1860, the Chuguchak Protocol of 25 September, 1864, the St. Petersburg Treaty of 12 February, 1881, the Novy Margelan Protocol of 22 May, 1884, and others.
All these documents, especially the descriptions of border delimitation and the maps attached to them were rather vague. The members of the delimitation commissions and envoys had no ideas about the landscapes they were dividing, the way the mountain ranges and peaks were situated in reality or where the rivers ran. The resultant description lacked any degree of exactitude: stretches of 500 km were described in a couple of sentences. This superficial description that did not reflect the very complicated mountainous landscape later invited arbitrary interpretations.
As a result there were two border lines between Russia and China: one of them was registered by bilateral documents that, though imperfect, were recognized by the sides. The other line was guarded de facto—unlike the registered one the sides never recognized it. During the early years of the People’s Republic of China the border issue was not topical: at that time the Soviet Union even removed the frontier posts along the state border between Soviet Kirghizia and China. It was only in the 1950s that the Chinese leaders, instigated by the worsening relations with the Soviet Union, formulated their border claims.
The border talks between the U.S.S.R. and the PRC that started in 1964 identified 25 disputed territories with an overall area of over 34 thous sq km. Five of them were found in Kirghizia (about 3,750 sq km). Nearly 450 sq km were near the Khan-Tengri Peak; about 250 sq km—at the Irkeshtam Pass; 180 sq km—in Zhany-Zher; about 2,840 sq km in the basin of the Uzengiu-Kuush, 5 km away from the Bedel Pass; 12 sq km—in Bozaygyr-Adjent. These areas are a result of the imperfect treaties mentioned above and the shifted guarded border that was displaced because of economic and other activities that had been going on there for a long time. To protect themselves the Soviet Union and China often exercised one-sided control of certain stretches where they placed outposts and other defensive constructions, were engaged in economic activities thus moving deep into disputed territories. During talks the sides agreed that this violated international laws.
Border negotiations with China went on and on, with intervals, for over thirty years. Joint consultations conducted in 1964 in Beijing failed to produce any positive results. At that time the sides started a discussion about the disputed areas in the western part of the border. The dialog resumed in 1969 after a meeting between Chairman of the U.S.S.R. Council of Ministers A. Kosygin with Premier of the PRC State Council Chou Enlai was fruitless. The talks continued till 1979. Meanwhile the situation along the border was unstable and tense. It was only at the talks resumed in 1987 that an agreement was reached to start delimitation of the frontiers based on the available documents, in full agreement with international law, in the spirit of justice and rational approach, mutual understanding and readiness to mutual concessions. During the first Soviet-Chinese summit that took place in May 1989 in Beijing these principles found reflection in the final joint communiqué. In May 1992 the Kyrgyz side recognized these principles during an official visit of President Askar Akaev to China and they were registered in a Kyrgyz-Chinese communiqué.
During the border negotiations the sides relied on the previous treaties. Kyrgyzstan that was building a state ruled by law was naturally desirous to stick to international laws in its relationships with other states, China included.
The talks about the Kirghiz-Chinese stretch of the state border between the Soviet Union and China went on from 1964 to 1991 within the general negotiation process between the two countries. When the Soviet Union fell apart Beijing announced its desire to continue negotiations with each of the former union republics separately in the following format: “China-Russia,” “China-Kazakhstan,” “China-Kyrgyzstan,” and “China-Tajikistan.” After prolonged diplomatic efforts the Chinese side agreed to the “joint delegation-China” format. The corresponding delegation was formed in 1992 that included representatives of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Tajikistan.
In 1992-1996, within this format, Bishkek and Beijing reached an agreement on four out of five disputed border areas. The stretches at the Khan-Tengri Peak and to the west of the Bedel Pass caused a lot of trouble. Our diplomats managed to increase four times the Kyrgyz sector at the Khan-Tengri Peak and insist on the Victory Peak remaining in Kyrgyzstan. The Chinese side also wanted it.
The decisions on the disputed areas Zhany-Zher and Irkeshtam were reached in full accordance with the citizenship of the people who lived there in 1996. These were the territories of systematic economic activity: in Irkeshtam there were a Kyrgyz village Nura (with a population of about 600), a border post and a communication network. In Zhany-Zher populated by Chinese citizens of Kyrgyz extraction there were a highway, electric network and communication lines. On 4 July, 1996 President of Kyrgyzstan Akaev and Chairman of the PRC Jiang Zemin signed a bilateral agreement on the border between the two states. The document registered the “delayed” status of the area to the west of the Bedel Pass (the catchment area of the Uzengiu-Kuush River) to be determined later.
It was for the first time in its history that Kyrgyzstan fixed its borders to the length of over 1,000 km according to international laws. The document passed through the usual procedures in the republic and came into force on 27 April, 1998 when the sides exchanged ratification instruments. In June 2001 the state border has been delimited on the stretches covered by the agreement. About 60 percent of the job has been done; the rest will be completed by 2003.
To create a belt of good-neighborly relations, cooperation, stability, and security along the borders between the Central Asian countries, Russia and China the joint delegation has been engaged, since 1989, in talks about confidence-building measures in the military sphere. In 1996 and 1997 Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and China signed two agreements on such measures and on mutual reduction of armed forces deployed within the 100-km-wide zone on the border’s both sides.
The question of the area “to the west of the Bedel Pass” (at the Uzengiu-Kuush River) remained unsettled while the main Agreement had been signed. The relevant talks proceeded with difficulties. The Chinese side insisted that the border stretch starting at the Bedel Pass went from one highest point to others of the Bedel and Borkoldoi mountain ranges, along the watershed of the Chon-Uzengiu-Kuush rivers and met the crest-line of the Kakshaal-Too mountain range to form a loop around the Chon-Uzengiu-Kuush basin. This was the version the Chinese side submitted to the Soviet side back in 1964. According to the Soviet version, the borderline started at the Bedel Pass, went on to the west, turned to the south and having crossed the Uzengiu-Kuush River reached the crest-line of the Kakshaal-Too mountain range along the shortest route.
For some time the sides were insisting on their versions but displayed a certain amount of flexibility by not exceeding the frame of the basic conditions of border settlement. They were convinced that the problem could be settled by concerted efforts.
In 1999 a draft Additional Agreement on the Kyrgyz-Chinese border based on a mutually acceptable solution was formulated as a product of repeated inter-state and inter-government consultations and numerous talks. It was signed by President of Kyrgyzstan Akaev and Chairman of the PRC Jiang Zemin on 26 August, 1999 in Bishkek. The disputed area in the basin of the Uzengiu-Kuush River was divided in the following way: Kyrgyzstan got 70 percent of the area, China, 30 percent.
This settlement completed the more than 150-year-old period of contradictions between the Russian and Chinese empires, the U.S.S.R. and the PRC, Bishkek and Beijing, which means that the present line of the state border between Kyrgyzstan and China received its legal form as the Additional Agreement on the Kyrgyz-Chinese border of 1999 ratified by the parliaments of both countries.
The Agreements signed by the sides are the product of prolonged and very complicated talks based on mutual respect, mutual understanding, and mutual concessions. It took account of the interests of both nations and both states.
The documents described above and the Agreements on the Meeting Points of the State Borders of Kyrgyzstan with Kazakhstan and China (1999), and with Tajikistan and China (2000) completed delimitation of the Kyrgyz-Chinese state border. The Agreement on Good-Neighborliness, Friendship and Cooperation signed on 24 June, 2002 in Beijing pointed out with satisfaction that the countries had settled all border issues and emphasized that they were determined to turn the frontier into a zone of eternal peace and friendship and to convey these sentiments to future generations.
These documents guarantee the country’s security. They have laid the legal foundation of inviolability of its state border with China and excluded all possibilities of more contradictions over the finally settled problem. This has obviously raised the confidence level on the border’s both sides and allows Kyrgyzstan to expect that its national interests will be protected and respected together with its status and that all inter-state agreements will be respected by international organizations, the U.N. in the first place. Some of the members of the joint delegation finally settled their border disputes with China: Kyrgyzstan, in 1999, Kazakhstan, in 1998 and Tajikistan in 2002 while Russia reached agreements on 90 percent of the disputed areas. The sides agreed to continue negotiations on the remaining 10 percent while preserving status quo.
Regrettably, certain politicians and members of the public remain convinced that it was a wrong step for Kyrgyzstan to enter into border negotiations because, they say, the state border without disputable areas already existed in the past between the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. Facts point to the contrary: the two countries could not agree on the border issue to the extent of armed clashes on the stretches that separated Kirghizia, Kazakhstan and Russia from China that took place in the late 1960s. The materials related to the situation on the Uzengiu-Kuush area in the 1971-1977 collected by the Soviet border guard service contain numerous examples of armed confrontation between the Soviet and Chinese border guards. The materials testify that each spring Chinese cattle breeders violated the border accompanied by army units to the catchment areas of the Kichi-Terek, Chon-Terek and Shaty-Terek rivers. China officially accused the Soviet Union of occupation of this part of Chinese territory. The border post that remained on the territory that now belongs to China had been set up by the Soviet Union in the 1970s in violation of an earlier agreement to stick to status quo on the disputable lands—the sides pledged to stay away from them. Under international law a presence of a border post or any other armed units on such territories cannot be taken for a proof that the territories belong to the country that deployed them.
We would like to discuss in brief the weakest arguments used by the opposition leaders and their supporters against the ratification of the Additional Agreement on the Kyrgyz-Chinese State Border in May 2002 because the polemics spread far and wide beyond the country.
First, contrary to what the opposition says no part of the Kyrgyz territory was transferred to China: it was the disputed areas along the state border identified back in 1964 when the government delegations of the U.S.S.R. and PRC had exchanged topographic maps that were delimitated. Earlier they belonged to neither state and were waiting for a mutually acceptable and just solution. For many years the Soviet Union and China and later Kyrgyzstan and China preserved status quo there.
Second, those who object to the ratification argue that Kyrgyzstan has the right not to recognize the 19th-century treaties between Russia and China because the documents were not just and were not equal. It should be said that since the middle of the 19th century Kyrgyz like all other peoples living in the Turkestan Area were in colonial dependence on Russia, therefore nobody asked what they thought. We should recognize that the treaties of the second half of the 19th century are the only legal foundation on which any settlement of territorial disputes can rest. This alone allowed the joint delegation to practically settle the problem of a considerable part of the disputed areas between Russia and China, while Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan have completely settled the border problems with the People’s Republic of China.
Third. The memory of a nation is an important factor when it comes to filling in historical and ethnological lacunae yet it cannot compete with exact dates and officially registered events. In our case the opposition and its supporters are operating with subjective interpretations of the past based on facts removed from their contexts and seriously distorted thus deluding those who know little or nothing about the issue.
Certain members of the opposition are exploiting for their political aims disjointed episodes and events of the ancient Kyrgyz history and speak about the past great power status of the Kyrgyz and their vast territorial possessions. In this way they impose on the public totally unsubstantiated ideas about huge territorial losses (that happened in the past and that are taking place today) that could have been avoided had the existing agreements been ignored. One should bear in mind that several hundred years ago the Kyrgyz were separate tribes scattered across South Siberia, Tuva, Khakassia, Manchuria, Mongolia, western China, and northern Afghanistan. These were nomadic tribes with no ethnopolitical territory of their own contained in clearly defined boundaries. According to prominent Oriental scholar Vassili Bartold the Kyrgyz great power status is solely related to the Enisey Kyrgyz as one of the direct key components of the ethnogenesis of the Kyrgyz proper. This status survived for 80 years in the 9th century and covered huge areas of Central Asia. Later, however, after the Tatar-Mongol invasion the Kyrgyz for a long time could not restore their state because of certain historical circumstances and because the people and its ethnopolitical territory had remained unformed. The ethnopolitical process went through several stages and took place in various historical and amid differing geographical conditions. It gradually narrowed down its territorial scope until it found itself nearly within the present borders. In the early Middle Ages the world was still ignorant of international legal mechanisms to serve as a delimitation instrument. We all know that this instrument appeared much later toward the end of the 17th century while an ethnos living on the territories of other states is neither a sufficiently serious nor a determining factor of delimitation of state borders. This has been amply confirmed by political history of many countries.
Fourth. Certain politicians are puffing up the thesis about a transfer to China of the Bedel Pass on which thousands of Kyrgyz rebels perished trying to escape to China during the tragic events connected with the 1916 rebellion in the Turkestan Governor-Generalship. It should be said that the pass was not discussed as a disputed area: the sides agreed on the existing state border, therefore there were no contradictions over the pass. The state border remained the same, that is, it followed the earlier Soviet-Chinese border. Kyrgyzstan preserved the pass. There is no need to concentrate on the 1916 tragedy: it has been studied fairly well yet certain points require clarification. The events cut down the number of Kyrgyz by 42 percent in the Semirechie and Ferghana regions of Turkestan, not only in the north where the present Kyrgyzstan is situated. Some of the Kyrgyz rebels who had escaped to China settled there permanently. Others decided to come back after the 1917 October revolution. These are the facts. Many could not negotiate the pass and died there. There were thousands of them but not the greater part of the rebels. Despite the very difficult mountainous terrain Kyrgyz were using the pass to reach China. Unfortunately, the slope that belongs to Kirghizia was unsuited to human habitation and economic activities.
The facts of history do not disappear without trace—they remind us about the best and worst periods of nations and states. We should not return to the past again and again in the 21st century and revive the unsolved problems burdened with new risks and dangers. Not only the young independent states but also old democracies, too, cannot cope with them. Domestic instability in one of the neighboring states creates problems for the entire common security system in the region. Stability and security of any country, the region and the world can be promoted only by concerted and rational steps, multilateral cooperation among states based on international laws, partnership, and mutual assistance. Today, no rationally thinking person can dream of restoring ancient borders of states that lost their vast territories because of disunity, weakness or colonial dependence. In the 20th century two world wars and the strongest powers changed the political map of the world several times. Kyrgyzstan was part of the Soviet Union. Why shouldn’t we be satisfied with the fact that when the communist superpower had disappeared we managed to finally resolve the complex border issues inherited from the Soviet Union in a civilized way, through talks and negotiations?
The world is in a process of integration; the recognized borders no longer separate the states yet all independent entities of international relations should respect the international legal norms. The Additional Agreement between Kyrgyzstan and China that created a legally viable instrument fits this context perfectly. All agreements concluded between the two countries in the first ten years of their official diplomatic relations will allow us to further develop and strengthen our cooperation free from the past contradictions, unfounded claims, mistrust and suspicions typical of the Cold War period.